George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

5 Essential Strategies for Planning Effective Professional Learning

Teachers should have a say in how they’ll meet learning goals, and schools need a clear way to determine that these goals are being met. 

June 28, 2021
damircudic / iStock

One thing that is certain in our uncertain world is that there will always be change, and as educators, we need to strive to continuously improve in our practice. Yet, with our busy schedules, how do we make this happen? Enter the saying, “Work smarter, not harder.” We can establish mindsets and habits to redefine adult learning to be more efficient and effective.

While there is no one, perfect recipe for professional learning, we find these mindsets and habits essential for planning high-quality adult learning that empowers educators.

5 Keys to Effective Professional Learning

1. Articulate firm goals: Schools around the world advocate for scope and sequence plans that outline firm goals about what all students should know and be able to do, but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a clear scope and sequence for professional learning. What do all teachers in your school need to know and do? Your educator evaluation rubric may be a great place to start to articulate those goals.

Next, ask your teachers, “What professional learning supports do you need to reach these goals?” Once you have goals articulated, it may be valuable to create a district professional learning calendar that shows which months, meetings, days, etc., will be focused on each of the goals. Having firm goals can also lead to much more effective faculty meetings.

2. Cocreate indicators of success: As you review your goals for professional learning, ask yourself, “What evidence or artifacts do we have to support that this is where we are, and how will we know when we are making progress?” We can’t ask teachers to be learner driven and evidence informed if we aren’t modeling the same.

For example, if one of your goals is to increase staff ability to understand and implement Universal Design for Learning, what data will you need to see that increase? Some considerations include teacher perception data on surveys, a review of classroom observations of practice, a review of notes from professional learning communities, and student achievement data. To be blunt, seat time in faculty meetings is not an indicator of success. Let’s get creative with evidence and focus on deliverables.

3. Provide flexible means: If we want to include all learners in inclusive and equitable learning, we have to foster voice and choice. The same is true in professional learning. Ensure that professional learning is not one-size-fits-all and that experiences are cocreated with teacher voice. Get excited—this is another opportunity to get creative and leverage rethinking.

Perhaps an inquiry-based approach would work. Consider the 3 Ds framework, Discover, Discuss, Demonstrate, which is just as relevant for adults as it is for our students. “Discover” could take the form of prelearning that is asynchronous. Ideally, this allows for tremendous choice on time, place, path, and/or pace. “Discuss” could be synchronous and/or asynchronous. Sometimes concepts are discussed in person, sometimes in an online discussion board or a Flipgrid because synchronous time is too limited and/or more time is needed for thoughtful responses. Cycles of inquiry are not linear, and “demonstrate” is not something that happens at the end. We are demonstrating growth throughout our continuous improvement.

4. Embed social and emotional learning (SEL) for all: We often hear about the importance of SEL in the classroom, but what about the adults? Consider how social and emotional practices can be intentionally and explicitly integrated throughout professional learning in meaningful ways. Welcoming rituals, engaging strategies, and optimistic closures are three practices that don’t take a lot of time and can have a big impact. For some examples, see the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s video “SEL: 3 Signature Practices for Adults.”

5. Spiral learning: We don’t want any one-hit wonders in professional learning. If the goals are important, articulate how they will spiral throughout the year. For example, in addition to having professional learning events, what is the plan to continue to support goals and measure progress through a variety of faculty meetings, PLCs, educator evaluation, book clubs, instructional rounds, etc.? It will go a long way to share with staff, “This is important, and this is how we are going to prioritize this throughout the year.”

Staying focused is critical for efficacy (and avoiding initiative fatigue). As we learn, refine, and reflect, we will certainly iterate and fine-tune, but we can’t jump from initiative to initiative and expect any real impact on teaching and learning.

Growing forward, keep this five-dollar word in mind: equifinality. This is the concept of multiple paths having the same effect, leading to a common end state. In other words, we can all arrive at the same destination even though we took different paths to get there. We believe the items above are essential tools to get to your destination, and there are also a variety of paths that will get you and your team there. Said another way, using these powerful mindsets and practices like a compass, we can have firm goals and flexible means to transform professional learning, meeting the needs of all adult learners.

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